This review actually incorporates two I flights I have taken on United in BusinessFirst on this exact same route (same flight actually). I flew from London to Houston last October and never got around to reviewing that flight and took the same flight a few weeks ago as well. So I guess this will be a more well rounded review rather than just a single impression. The first thing that stands out about this flight is that it leaves out of Terminal 4 and not Terminal 1. On my first flight I did not know this and luckily happened to be walking thru Terminal 4 the night before and saw the United signage. I was lucky to see this, otherwise, I would have gone to Terminal 1 where the bulk of United’s flights arrive and depart. All of Continental’s flights from LHR departed out of Terminal 4 so the IAH & EWR still use this Terminal (Update!!! As of June 2014 all of United’s flights arrive & depart from Terminal 2 or the Queen’s Terminal. So some of the airport information is outdated. However, the service and United’s product are still the same. United has both a United Club & Global First lounge in Terminal 2 as well as an arrival’s lounge. As a side-note, eventually all Star Alliance Carriers will move to this new terminal). This actually suits me just fine as I stay at the Hilton in terminal 4 and it makes it very easy to catch these flights. The other thing is that when flying BusinessFirst (there is no First Class on these flights) you can use the Skyteam lounge across from Gate 10 in Terminal 4. You can also use this lounge if you are Star Alliance Gold and flying economy, but I am not sure if you can use this lounge if you are a United Club member (I would hope you could).
United’s check-in area at Terminal 4 is adjacent to the departure area, so it is very convenient. On the first flight I checked-in via the automated kiosk, but still had to get my boarding pass stamped (you have to be asked security questions). The second time I just checked-in with an agent. On both occasions check-in was friendly, fast, and efficient. As was security. I was able to use Fast-Track both times, but this only saved me a few minutes because there wasn’t much of a line at security (I would imagine different parts of the day it is a great time saver). Unfortunately, my bag was selected for additional security on the most recent trip and I had to wait for four people ahead of me have their bags re-screened. This took almost 30 minutes. So suddenly I was short on time and only had a few minutes to use the lounge. The Skyteam Lounge is very nice at Terminal 4. In fact, in my opinion, a little nicer than the Star Alliance lounge in Terminal 1. My flight in October departed out of Gate 10, which is across from the Lounge, but this latest flight departed from Gate 2, a good 10 minute walk. In fact, half way to my gate I heard my name being paged that the gate was closing. This was a bit of a surprise because departure time was still a half hour a way. A few minutes later I arrived and was the last person to board (of course we ended up taking a short delay because of a fueling issue).
Both flights were on 777-200’s. This is the Continental BusinessFirst lay-out, so there is no First Class (for review of United’s Business Class on their three Class product visit; http://patstravelreviews.com/?p=259). Only BusinessFirst, Economy Plus, and Economy. This can be somewhat confusing, because in essence United has two different Business Classes. The BusinessFirst which is Continental’s Business/First Class hybrid and then United’s new Business Class. To add to the confusion on United’s new deliveries (like the 787) they are being installed with Continental’s BusinessFirst seats. BusinessFirst on the 777 has 50 seats. Nine rows, in two cabins, in a 2x2x2 configuration. I sat in 1E on both flights. The bulkhead seat in the middle section. I feel these seats have a little more room than the non-bulkhead seats, but that may just be my preference. Either way, they have a very generous 60″ of pitch (although not as much as the 76″ on their New Business Class seats), lay out to a 6’4″ lie-flat bed and are 20″ wide. What I like more about this version of United’s Business Class is that there is no middle seats (the configuration on United’s 777’s three class is 2x4x2) and there is a little more personal space to put your belongings at your seat (an area over your shoulder). The seat is also easy to set to a comfortable sitting position. There is an overhead light as well as one on the side of the seat. The cabin temperature was fine, but there were no air vents above (most United 777’s do have), in case you got warm.
The Entertainment system is essentially the same as United’s new Business Class seats. Although they have slightly different menu’s. It is AVOD (on-demand), and has 100’s of movies to choose from. New releases, classic’s, International Films, TV shows, Documentaries, and a very large selections of CD’s to listen to. There are games to play as well as a moving map to keep track of your flight’s progress. According to United, the TV screen size is 15.4″, (which is a huge upgrade from United’s old Business Class seats TV’s), but I think these monitor’s are slightly smaller than United’s newer Business Class seat. I have always thought the entertainment controls was a little jumpy, however, on a more recent United flight I realized that I was just impatient and the controls work fine (TV is also touch screen). What didn’t work fine was the reception on the flight in October. I had to endure static throughout the movie and TV show’s I watched. The flight was full in Business so I could not change seats and just got used to it after a while. United does provide headphones that are decent quality (supposed to be noise reducing), but I used my own (static with both). You do need to use a two pronged adapter if using your own headphones. The reception was fine on the more recent flight. While the plug for the headphones is above your shoulder, in a slightly awkward place, the power port is located in the same place and somehow I felt it was easily accessible. My one complaint with United’s entertainment is many of the same movies and TV shows that played in October were also on my late January flight (and a February flight as well). So I had trouble finding something to watch that I hadn’t already seen (or didn’t want to see). Another complaint is Channel 9 (from the cockpit) was not available on either flight. But on the positive side you can access the entertainment system before take-off. Wi-fi was also not available on either flight.
On your seat when you board is a nice pillow and blanket. Along with the menu and amenity kit. The same amenity kit is provided for all United Business/BusinessFirst flights. Philosophy products with eye-shades, socks, toothbrush& toothpaste, tissue, comb, pen, and sanitizer. I was warmly greeted on both flights and immediately felt like I was back flying Continental. Not necessarily because of the greeting’s but the flight attendants still wore Continental Uniform’s and even wore Continental pins. Orange juice, water or champagne were offered before take-off. The orange juice was Minute Maid, but from the UK, and not as good as the usual Minute Maid United serves. As I said, the January flight was delayed by 20 minutes, however the prior flight pushed 20 minutes early.
The meal service was basically the same on both flights. A warm towel was distributed after take-off, followed by drink orders and warm nuts. Shortly thereafter, an appetizer and salad were served. They were served separately, and on Continental’s china. Whereas, on United’s three class flights the appetizer and salad come together on a tray in Business Class. Having each course served individually gives it more of a First Class feel.
There was a choice of two appetizers. Both served chilled. Either a smoked salmon or dried meat and melon. Prosciutto and melon on one and dried beef and melon on the other. Bread was offered at the same time. United has improved their bread offerings in the past year or so. Not only has the quality improved, but they have more than one or two choices. Plus, they are now pleased to give you two different rolls if asked. Years ago, asking for a second roll was looked on with scorn. It’s hard to be too enthusiastic about melon and prosciutto, but they were a nice start to the meal.
After the appetizer, a salad was served with your choice of either creamy passion fruit dressing or a balsamic vinaigrette. The salad was very similar on both flights, The one pictured had dried cranberries while the other was accompanied with walnuts. In both cases they were fresh and good (or as good as a salad can be on an airplane).
As these flights departed a few minutes before 10 am. I was happy to see that lunch was being served and not breakfast. I had already eaten breakfast in the hotel and by the time lunch was actually served it was past noon. There was however, a Brunch selection offered (egg, mushroom and tomato roulade, apple-cinnamon crepe, potatoes and sausage). I can not find the menu from the October flight, but I know the menu’s were different. As I was the last to board the plane, I did not have a chance to look at the menu when the flight attendant asked me what I wanted for lunch. Having recently been on this flight I thought I would be clever and say what was served the last time. Either chicken, beef, or pasta depending how they were served and what accompanied them. This is usually the choices. But not this time. There was a Ricotta and Parmesan-filled rolled pasta, but the other two dishes I have never seen on a United flight. San Francisco style Cioppino – cod, scallops, shrimp, and calamari in a savory sauce or Lamb Steak with natural jus served with potato gratin and vegetables. I can not eat seafood so that was out and do not like United’s take on pasta (nothing Italian about United). So out of a process of elimination I chose the Lamb. I can’t say I enjoyed it all that much, but I am not the biggest fan of lamb so this is not really an accurate testimonial. On the first flight the steak served with spetzel was tasty. I would have enjoyed it more if it was served a little warmer (really, a lot warmer – seems to be a trend with United lately. Food served lukewarm) . The lamb, however, was served nice and hot.
After dinner a selection of cheese was served with crackers, grapes and a Port. Followed by the sundae cart. Toppings included caramel, chocolate, and strawberry sauce with whipped cream. I am always happy to finish my meal with ice cream.
On both flights I was able to sleep a few hours after lunch. While the seats are lie-flat, I prefer more of a cradle position to sleep. I had a hard time getting the seat into a comfortable sitting position (especially when eating) but was able to get it into a comfortable sleeping position for me. As I said earlier these seats are a little wider than United’s three class Business Class seats. That along with the nice soft pillow and warm blanket provided for a very nice sleep.
In-between the meal services some mid-flight snacks are available near the galley. Pretzels, Lily O’Brien chocolates, Lotus cookies, whole fruits, potato chips, and Toblerone chocolates. Not the best selection of mid-flight snacks, but on the most recent flight there was some homemade cranberry and chocolate chip cookies available, which I enjoyed. The flight time on both flights was a little over 9.5 hrs. So it is nice to be able to grab something to eat if you get hungry or can’t sleep.
An hour before landing hot towels were distributed and a second meal is served. Not the Afternoon English Tea Service with scones and sandwiches that I remember United serving (or used to) on flights from LHR (they may still serve it on their ORD, IAD, SFO, and LAX routes). Rather, more like a lunch you would receive on a two hour domestic flight in First Class. There is only one choice for this meal. On the first flight some kind of chicken wrap was served and the second was supposed to be a cheeseburger but was replaced with a chicken and cheese calzone. Both meals came with a fruit bowl, small salad and a box of Lily O’Brien chocolates. The calzone was surprisingly good and the wrap tasted better than it looks. Both were appropriate meals to serve as we landed into IAH mid afternoon.
Despite the short delay leaving LHR we still landed on time into IAH (first flight was a little early). It is a long walk from the arrival gates in Terminal E to Passport and Custom. But once there it was painless and usually is in Houston. They have plenty of agents working and even have a separate “one-stop” passport line for those who only have carry-ons. What isn’t painless is going back through security to get to the terminal. On both flights the line was over 20 minutes long.
No one will ever confuse United with Singapore, Emirates or even British Airways. And there is good reason for this. They certainly do not provide the same level of service as these airlines. Nor do they have the small niceties other airlines have (on both UA flights there was no lotion, mist, flower, etc in lavatory) However, the service on both flights was professional and friendly, the IFE is greatly improved and provides hours of entertainment with a nice large screen, the meals are ample and tasty, and most importantly, the flights were on time. Plus as a 1K member I was able to use Systemwide Upgrades (now called Global Premier Upgrades) to fly in BusinessFirst. If I was paying for a Business Class ticket and frequent flyer miles was not a deciding factor United would not be my first choice from London. But neither was the case for me, so United is my only choice. Lastly, between their two Business Class products I would give the edge to the old Continental BusinessFirst layout. The cabin and seat are roomier and the meal service slightly better.